The PM is undermining our freedoms

Published by The i paper (22nd March 2021)

For five years, Global Britain has been a slogan in search of a meaning. Last week, the Government sought to flesh out this hoary concept, publishing a defence and security strategy designed to define the UK’s post-Brexit place in the world. It was a confused document that largely ignored Europe, was incoherent on China and weak on Africa. Yet it made clear their priority was protection of “fair, secure and transparent” democracy at home – “the first duty of any government” – while promoting these important values around the planet.

The following day, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, gave a speech fleshing out this stance. It was billed as showing how Britain must be a force for good in the world. “Democracy is in retreat,” he declaimed, arguing that “stable, freedom-respecting, democracies” are the best form of government. He talked of young people risking their lives to fight for such values on the streets of Belarus, Hong Kong, Myanmar and Russia, while thundering that “British people…expect their government to stand up for freedom, democracy and the rule of law”.

I agree with Raab’s sentiments. I have also reported on protests in Belarus, Hong Kong and Russia, observing the bravery of people inspired by dreams of freedom to risk so much in a desperate bid to throw off the shackles of dictatorship. In each of those three countries, protesters told me of their desire to live with the sort of rights we take so readily for granted in Britain. So why is our Government trampling on democracy at home and trashing our reputation abroad, even as it makes those speeches and releases such reports?

Take that issue of protest, highlighted by the Foreign Secretary. A friend of mine from Russia, resident in this country for almost three decades, asked me last week why the Government was driving through a law to restrict demonstrations that he saw as redolent of measures taken under Vladimir Putin? He was even more baffled since he thought the Tory party was supposed to stand for freedom. Yet on the same day Boris Johnson released that grandiloquent Global Britain report, his MPs backed an alarming crime Bill that restricts the right to protest in England and Wales.

It seems the pandemic has given Johnson an unhealthy taste for restricting liberty. Yet as his predecessor Theresa May said, freedom of speech is the basis of our democracy “however annoying or uncomfortable sometimes that might be”. This Bill is a populist stunt to appease the hard right, reflecting their loathing of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. It imposes a ridiculous maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for defacing a statue while permitting a clampdown on protests that might “impact” or “unease” people. Since demonstrations are disruptive, with people shouting and marching down streets, this gives police sweeping powers to stop almost any protest.

May could never have been called a liberal during her six years as Home Secretary, yet was clearly horrified by the measure.  She concluded her speech in Parliament with a stark warning to consider carefully the fine line between being popular and populist since “our freedoms depend on it”. Yet even this former prime minister looks increasingly out of place in a Conservative Party captured by populists. For this is far from the only example of Johnson being so cavalier over cornerstones of our democracy, even as he advocates for the cause on the global stage.

Take another degrading Bill trundling through the Lords that seeks to protect British troops from torture or war crime charges after five years. Never mind that it took thousands of Kenyans more than half a century to gain recognition that our forces engaged in atrocities including arbitrary killings, castration and sexual abuse during their fight for independence, nor more recent evidence of similar crimes carried out by a few renegade soldiers in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

The Government’s sole focus is on stopping “vexatious claims” to calm vociferous voices on the right, not protecting the good name of
a nation that helped establish Geneva Conventions after the Second World War. This Bill has sparked cross-party concern, uniting former Tory and Labour defence secretaries in horror. Even generals have condemned what they call “a stain on the country’s reputation” since it offers “de facto impunity” for hideous crimes. 

The five-year limit does not only apply to actions taken in heat of battle, but also the more calculated kind of abuse seen during the damaging “war on terror”. Incredibly, the International Criminal Court has warned Britain that if the measure is passed, it may start investigating and prosecuting at The Hague any soldiers suspected of war crimes. Yet arrogant ministers plough on with another degrading measure.

These foolish Bills are typical of a Government that boasts of breaking international law on Brexit, then violates an agreement on border checks in Ireland because the Prime Minister is too cowardly to confront voters with the truth about his pet cause. They are in keeping with a leader who ignores the vetting system to place a dodgy donor in Parliament and ministers so blasé when doling out state contracts to pals or spitting venom at lawyers who dare challenge legality of their decisions on behalf of refugees.

Slowly but surely, step by step, the country’s prestige is corroded. Jimmy Carter, an under-rated US president who grew in stature after leaving office, once said: “The best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate that our democratic system is worthy of emulation.” Now his nation is in recovery from its damaging brush with populism that undermined its core political creed. Meanwhile, we seem stuck with a populist sect that is failing in its self-declared first duty. Our Prime Minister preaches about democracy while persistently chipping away at its foundations, leaving both the country and the cause severely diminished.

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